Philly Transit Riders Union

Our One Year Fare Plan for a COVID-19 Recovery, May 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences. In the United States, more than a hundred thousand are dead and more than 40 million have made unemployment claims. Locally, more than 25% of the workforce has filed for unemployment in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In April 2020, SEPTA ridership was down more than 80% for City and Suburban transit divisions and down more than 90% for Regional Rail. Seven SEPTA employees are confirmed to have lost their lives to COVID-19.

SEPTA proposed a new fare schedule on March 11th, just before this crisis occurred. This fare schedule has not been modified in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This fare proposal should be rejected by the SEPTA Board of Directors at their vote in June 2020 unless it includes relief for low-income and unemployed riders.

This document outlines our proposal for a low income fare program and lower, simpler fares systemwide for one year. Approximately 30 riders testified at the hearings in favor of this proposal and hundreds more have signed in support of its implementation by SEPTA.

“I travel from North Philly to Ambler and I have to get to the Lansdale train. A weekly pass is $47; it’s too much. I’m an essential worker, I work at a supermarket.” – Todd


Essential workers have continued to ride SEPTA throughout the COVID-19 crisis and will likely continue to ride SEPTA during a long recovery. These essential workers are predominantly women, Black and Hispanic. One quarter of essential workers in Pennsylvania make less than $30,000 annually. These essential worker jobs are more likely to be located outside the city center than are jobs with higher salaries. Further, Philadelphia has the lowest minimum wage of any major city in the US. While minimum wage workers make $15/hr in New York, $12.75/hr in Boston and $11/hr in Baltimore, workers in Philadelphia make $7.25/hr. It is particularly cruel that public transit fares are adjusted to the rate of inflation but the Pennsylvania minimum wage is not. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has not risen since 2009. SEPTA fares, when expressed as a percentage of median household income, are higher than those in Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

High wage workers, who are majority white, are six times more likely to be able to work from home. These workers will likely continue to work from home until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, which may take 12-18 months or more.

The SEPTA system reflects this racial and class divide, where high wage earners get an extensive regional rail network and low wage earners get infrequent and crowded bus service. The socioeconomic segregation and high fares of our transit system has long been an equity issue and is now a public health issue.

Compounding these existing issues, SEPTA’s proposed FY2021 fare schedule does not take into account the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on riders. Because the fallout of this crisis is likely to last a year or more, we suggest that the proposed fare schedule be modified to lower fares to $1 for all modes for one year with $12 unlimited monthly passes. This would allow essential workers to keep more earnings and would allow all riders to use the Regional Rail system regardless of income. This could allow for better social distancing and faster commutes for essential workers. We should try, for one year, a truly affordable system with equal access for all.

“The food pantry at my agency saw a tremendous increase in clients needing access to our pantry. Families are struggling. People who have never used our food bank, or any food bank, are flocking to our doors. These families could definitely benefit from having reduced fares while the city is trying to recover. I support the riders union plan for fairer fares for these families.” – Janice


As a result of COVID-19 more than 25% of the workforce in Pennsylvania and New Jersey has filed for unemployment. Pennsylvania’s overloaded unemployment compensation system has resulted in extended, stressful waits for unemployment benefits.

Philadelphia, well known as the poorest big city in America, is long overdue for a low-income fare program. With unemployment at rates not seen since the Great Depression there is no excuse not to include a low-income fare program in SEPTA’s new fare schedule. We propose that PA ACCESS or EBT cards should be accepted as full fare anywhere on the SEPTA system, allowing the bearer to ride for low or no fare.

SEPTA’s Key readers, perpetually over-budget and under-performing, should not be used as an excuse not to implement this program. If SEPTA Key readers can not read these cards, a bearer should be able to display them to any operator, cashier, or conductor for unlimited entry to the system until the Key card readers can be made to read them.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has already done the work of determining a rider’s eligibility. SEPTA can immediately authorize this as an emergency, income-based relief-fare program.

“I am an older disabled rider for whom using the Key card is a disaster since I cannot afford a smartphone. Tokens are far superior in ease of use, economical, and better for the environment than plastic coated cards that need to be constantly replaced. But until tokens are returned to, using ACCESS cards to pay for fares is a common sense bridge during the pandemic and into the future.” – Cynthia


We understand that SEPTA is in a difficult position by being required by law to adopt an operating budget during this pandemic. We appreciate SEPTA’s willingness to postpone fare increases for six months, but there are indications the recovery from this crisis will last a year or more.

Free transfers and lower child fares are great parts of SEPTA’s proposal: we and others have organized for their inclusion in SEPTA’s fare plan before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are also very bad parts of SEPTA’s proposal: fare increases, ride limits, cash fare penalties and Regional Rail is still unaffordable for many. The SEPTA Board of Directors should not pass SEPTA’s fare proposal which was created before the pandemic and remains unchanged now.

We ask the SEPTA Board of Directors to pass a one-year fare plan that lowers all fares to the same price and allows anyone with a PA ACCESS or EBT card to ride the entire system.

“I’m a single mom, raising a child with special needs, and oftentimes public transportation is our only way to get around. I’ve been completely out of work since March and I know a lot of people have also lost work and rely on public transportation. With the state of unemployment being what it is and the state of the economy being what it is and this pandemic affecting largely Black and indigenous people of color, who are low income and that generally being the population that uses public transportation the most in the city, I think it’s definitely not the time for a fare hike and lowering fares is the only ethical move to make right now.” – Chrys


These are the SEPTA Board members who will be voting on SEPTA’s fare proposal in June 2020.

You can reach us any time at or 267-313-6060.

Download a PDF of this report here